The prince and the pir

The prince and the pir: Dervishes and mysticism in Iran and India

The British Museum

11 March – 8 July 2015

Room 34 /Open late Fridays

This small display presents works on paper and objects exploring depictions and attributes of Sufi dervishes from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

The relationship between a ruler and his spiritual adviser in the Islamic world has historically been an important one. In the Persian-speaking contexts of Iran and India, a holy man known as a pir or shaykh often provided spiritual guidance. After the 12th century, many of these practised Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism, whose devotees believe that the best way to know God is through the wisdom of one’s heart. Sufis are known for their renunciation of material things. However, they did not necessarily withdraw from the world, and many were connected to social and political institutions. The negotiation of power and authority between princes and Sufis could sometimes become tense or hostile, but it could also lead to mutually beneficial interactions.

This display presents diverse images of Sufis, from begging, wandering dervishes to legitimisers of princes’ reigns. Works produced in Iran and India between the 16th and 19th centuries range from album and manuscript pages to objects used in daily life.